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A new hope in the fight against cancer

Image credit: The NanoRobotics Laboratory, Polytechnique Montréal

Nanorobots that travel through the bloodstream to attack tumour cells could one day be used to fight cancer.

Sylvain Martel, Director of the Polytechnique Montréal Nanorobotics Laboratory, and a team of researchers from Polytechnique Montréal, Université de Montréal and McGill University have devised nanorobotic agents comprised of 100 million drug-loaded bacteria. This research was funded in part by CQDM. This self-propelled army takes the most direct path through the bloodstream to a cancerous tumour and injects medication into its active cells.

This injection method ensures the optimal targeting of a tumour and avoids jeopardizing the integrity of organs and surrounding healthy tissues. The dosage level of highly toxic drugs can also be significantly reduced.

“Our work represents a new vision of cancer treatments, with our goal being to develop the most effective transportation systems for the delivery of therapeutic agents right to tumour cells, to areas unreachable by conventional treatments,” says Dr. Martel.

“Chemotherapy, which is so toxic for the entire human body, could make use of these natural nanorobots to move drugs directly to the targeted area, eliminating the harmful side effects while also boosting its therapeutic effectiveness.”

Able to follow paths smaller than a red blood cell, these self-propelled bacteria move at high speed (200 microns per second, or 200 times their size per second), and their natural transportation systems guide them to their targets. A kind of compass created by the synthesis of a chain of magnetic nanoparticles allows them to move in the direction of a magnetic field, while a sensor measuring oxygen concentration enables them to reach and remain in the tumour’s active regions.

Once they are inside the tumour, they are able to naturally detect hypoxic (oxygen-starved) zones, which are the most active zones and the hardest to treat by conventional means, including radiotherapy, and then deliver the drug.

Dr. Martel and his team have so far tested the nanorobot delivery system only on mice with colorectal tumours, but the results have been promising. The drug-loaded bacteria reached all targeted tumours, with 55% injecting the drug right into the heart of the tumour.

Chemotherapy traditionally sees only 1-2% of anti-cancer agents reaching their target, and causes more side effects. Better targeting reduces how much medication must be injected, thus decreasing toxicity to the body.

“This innovative use of nanotransporters will have an impact not only on creating more advanced engineering concepts and original intervention methods, but it also throws the door wide open to the synthesis of new vehicles for therapeutic, imaging and diagnostic agents,” Dr. Martel adds.

Dr. Martel’s groundbreaking research received Québec Science’s 2016 Discovery of the Year People’s Choice award.

The Jewish General Hospital of Montréal, the McGill University Health Centre, the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer, and the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Research Centre also participated in the research. In addition to CQDM, the project received support from the Canada Research Chairs Program, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, MITACS, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the National Institutes of Health.